Like everything else, Ebola is becoming an intensely political issue, and Republicans see in it a precious opportunity just two weeks from Election Day. If fear is on the march, some have obviously calculated, the best thing to do is to nurture it, feed it, and ride its momentum to victory. As for their Democratic opponents, as usual, courage from that corner is in short supply.
So wouldn’t it be nice if a Democratic candidate or two had the guts to stand up and say: “Look, everybody needs to calm down”?
The ordinary impulse for politicians is to pander to whatever emotions people are feeling, and if they’re afraid, then the way you handle it is to tell them that you’re afraid too, and we should all be afraid. But the question of just how freaked out Americans are is a complicated one. On one hand, as I wrote last week, polls show that the public actually has quite a bit of confidence in the government to handle this problem. On the other hand, not only do an absurd number of people believe they’re at real risk of contracting the disease, anecdotal reports are coming in from all over about the most ridiculous overreactions — the school in Mississippi where parents kept their kids home after learning that the principal had traveled to Zambia (a country where there have been no Ebola cases), the teacher forced to take a vacation because she had gone to a conference in Dallas, and so on.
The message people are getting from the media is also complicated. There has been saturation coverage, guaranteed to freak everyone out. At the same time, lots of voices in the media have been trying to explain to everyone how infinitesimally small their odds of contracting this disease are (here’s a good example today, from Harold Pollack explaining how the system is working). So it isn’t as though it would be outlandish for a Democrat running for Senate or governor to look for some political advantage in being the level-headed one. You could even turn it into an attack — my opponent wants you to panic, but I say America is better than that!
But more typical is what we’re seeing in North Carolina, where Matea Gold reports: “The specter of Ebola in the United States, on the heels of stories about the violent militants of the Islamic State, has made security a late-breaking wild-card issue in North Carolina’s Senate race.” Democratic Senator Kay Hagan at first had dismissed the idea of a travel ban on the affected west African countries, but has now changed her mind, despite the consensus of public health experts that such a ban would actually hinder efforts to get the disease under control.
In Iowa, Joni Ernst accused Bruce Braley of not responding quickly enough to Ebola, while Braley accused the White House of not responding quickly enough. Michelle Nunn in Georgia also came out for a travel ban. This blog has already laid out the larger game plan behind the GOP strategy; the new development is Democrats caving to it.
In fairness, some Democrats haven’t been so defensive. Mark Udall in Colorado has sounded more measured than most on the topic, opposing a travel ban because of the opinions of public health experts. But even he suggested banning people being monitored for exposure to the virus from traveling, which is perfectly fine, but sounds a lot like a candidate who wants to be able to say that he proposed something “tough.”
I won’t bother going over all the reasons why we shouldn’t be terrified of a disease that has to date infected two out of 316 million of us. But Democrats might consider the possibility that being rational might actually turn out to be politically smart. This morning, the folks at NBC’s First Read suggested that the Ebola panic might soon fade.
Of course, all it would take is for another reported case of Ebola in the United States to end this wave of good news. But if we go a week without another case, it’s quite likely that the Ebola story — at least on the American campaign trail — would come to a halt.
At that point, if your opponent had been telling everyone that panic was the right course of action, and you had been counseling calm you just might them come across as the kind of sensible leader voters are looking for. Crazier things have happened.